Thought Leadership Versus Content – What is the Difference?

These days the terms ‘thought leadership’ and ‘content’ are used almost interchangeably. What is the difference? Marketers of professional services (traditionally legal, accounting and engineering services) have been using ‘thought leadership’ as a strategic profiling, brand building device for decades. These days, as we market professional services firms, B2B, and B2C companies, we talk about both thought leadership and content marketing. I’m not sure people really know what they both are and how they should be used.

Thought leadership is exactly that, leading edge thought. Thought leadership is the goal; the goal is to be seen as a ‘thought leader’. It is actually the goal of a particular type of content. Thought leadership content is material containing original thoughts, opinions and in-depth analysis, which hypothesises and proposes new concepts and ideas. True thought leadership will take a long-term view on topics and issues. It’s about building reputation and authority over time and across multiple digital, social and offline channels. It enables your organisation’s subject matter experts to act as trusted advisers who offer helpful, responsive, generous and useful advice. Over time, this type of content will establish the firm’s experts as true thought leaders. If you are the subject matter expert, you will participate in online and offline conversations, and steadily build your credibility through affinity, authenticity and trust. This adds value to your personal brand and ultimately the brand of the firm.

Content, on the other hand, has multiple purposes. It is the material you or your company produces, in whatever format you choose, i.e. written content, videos, infographics, memes, newsletters, podcasts etc. It specifically refers to online, digital material, although some marketers are starting to refer to offline printed material as content now too. It is not meant to explicitly promote a brand, but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

The Content Marketing Institute, an online resource for information on all things content marketing related, defines content marketing as: “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

The key word is “valuable”, otherwise the definition could be describing almost any form of advertising or marketing. If people seek out a piece of content, if people want to consume it, rather than avoiding it, it’s the sort of content that could be part of a content marketing campaign.

There are numerous different formats of digital content. See Tami Briesies’ “101 Different Types of Digital Content”.

The relationship between the two

Content marketing is about building the brand, driving client/customer action, and ultimately driving sales, by engaging the target audience. Thought leadership is achieved by using particular types of content in a new and unique way, to build profile and positioning. Thought leadership content would generally be content such as white papers, reports, articles, videos etc. For example, a white paper or report might analyse the results of industry research and you might even choose to charge a fee for this content. The thought leadership content establishes the author, and the brand, as a thought leader.

Back in 2013, Laura Ramos, of Forrester, illustrated the relationship like this:

Some excellent examples of B2B thought leadership can be found in the article “11 B2B Brands Putting Out Real Thought Leadership Content” by Robert McGuire.

How do you use them both?

For quality content, the idea is to produce a consistent volume of engaging content, making sure it is:

  • Findable
  • Readable
  • Understandable
  • Actionable
  • Shareable

This checklist from Ahava Leibtag “Creating Valuable Content: An Essential Checklist” is a great place to start.

Content should be used to engage with potential clients/customers and drive interested prospective clients/customers (leads) to your website to ultimately take action, by signing up for more content or to be contacted by you directly.

Thought leadership content should be used to build your profile as an expert in your area of expertise. Thought leadership ultimately helps you position yourself and your service as significantly valuable to potential clients. Prospective clients will seek you out and it will allow you to realise your optimum value.

The key is to develop a targeted, structured, and informed content strategy, including thought leadership content, to increase brand engagement and ultimately increase sales leads.

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